Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 9, 2012

Midwest medical team is on a mission to heal


TRAVERSE CITY — Samana in the Dominican Republic is 2,000 miles away from the Traverse City, but many of its residents hold a special place in the hearts of several area doctors and nurses.

The city of more than 90,000 is located along the east shore of the small Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Many Samana residents can't afford medical care.

A Midwest Medical Mission team of 18 doctors and nurses, most from Munson Medical Center and Cadillac Mercy Hospital, spent a week there in mid-October performing 30 free surgeries and treating about 450 people in a clinic set up in the local hospital.

Todd Stone, CEO-owner of Teter Othotics, also collected measurements for 26 prosthetic arms and legs and one orthotic brace being made by his Traverse City firm, which has 20 offices in Michigan. The limb losses are the result of birth defects, machete accidents or wounds and motorcycle accidents.

"Many people there drive mopeds and bicycles and there are a lot of crippling accidents," said Bill Hermann, a Munson nurse anesthetist. "Dominican doctors do a lot of amputations because poor people there don't have access to the complicated orthopedic surgeries we have here, so they don't get the kind of surgery that would save the limb."

A mission first-timer, Stone plans to return to Samana in January to fit the 26 amputees with their prosthetics. Teter staff members are donating their time to make the 13 above-knee, eight below-knee, two above-elbow and three below legs and arms.

The prosthetics have an estimated commercial value of $250,000 to $350,000, he said. Many of the parts were donated by vendors.

"It was time to give back," Stone said of his decision to join the mission this year. "I've been fortunate in life."

The mission trip also was a first for Traverse City surgeon Tom Quinn and wife Maggie, a non-medical volunteer who worked in the clinic. Quinn conducted all 30 surgeries over three days. Most would be considered outpatient surgery at Munson, he said, but two gall bladder operations had to be done the old way, complete with long incision, because the hospital had no laparoscopy equipment.

Medical coordinators for the trip were Hermann and Kym Bonham. It was Herman's 12th trip and Bonham's 13th.

They helped collect the necessary donated supplies — medicine, bandages, surgical sponges, even a floor scrubber for the hospital.

"If we don't bring it in, we don't have it," said Bonham, an anesthesia tech at Mercy Hospital in Cadillac.

She's seen many changes at the Dominican hospital over the years. The first year fly strips hung in the operating room, the ceiling was crumbling and doctors often had to conduct surgery by flashlight and headlamps. Those situations have improved, though electric power remains a "huge issue."

The two overhead lights in the operating room didn't work and there were some power fluctuations, Quinn said, but the surgery crew didn't have to bring out flashlights or headlamps this trip. Improved lighting probably will be a goal when the team returns to Samana in February 2014, Hermann said.

Quinn was surprised to see how well organized and supplied the operating room, recovery room and clinic were.

"They've been doing this for years and they've thought of everything," he said.

Still, the hospital lacks sufficient supplies. This year, its staff took used surgical sponges out of the trash, washed and sterilized them for reuse.

The mission program was established in Ohio 25 years ago by Dominican-born doctors concerned about medical care in their homeland. Area doctors and nurses have participated for at least 13 consecutive years.

Bonham estimated her personal costs for this year's working vacation at $1,500 to $1,800. Like other team members, she wants to go again.

"It's the most rewarding thing I've done in my life because of the need," she said. "The simplest things, a smile or putting a hand on a shoulder, mean so much. They are so appreciative."

Physician Sara Roth, who doubled as a translator, expressed similar sentiments.

"For all of us, it's just a privilege to go down there," said Roth, whose Peruvian parents moved to New York when she was a child. "Even though we're making a change in our patients' lives, their impact on us is much greater."

Quinn is also in for a return visit.

"I'll go back, no question," Quinn said. "These people need health care, and I have the skills to help out. I'd also like to come up with a way to have better lighting in the operating room."